How to create stunning panoramic photographs with your iPhone

With your iPhone you have one of the best 4:3 compact cameras in the world, but what happens when the world you want to capture isn't 4:3? What happens when you come across a gorgeous scene -- the Golden Gate bridge at sunset, the Manhattan skyline at dawn, the crystal-clear island beach, the magnificent Old Port architecture, the rally that's filling the campus. You can still take a photo, or several photos, of part of it, but nothing can really compare to capturing the full breadth and majesty of such an image all in one shot.

Enter the panorama.

The difference between wide angle and panorama

There's a fine line between what separates a photograph taken with a wide angle lens and a panoramic photograph. We're not going to get into the nitty-gritty details, so for the sake of simplicity, we'll say that a panoramic photo is one that has a wider field of view than the human eye, is at least twice as long as it is tall, and was created by using software (in our case, apps) to stitch together multiple images.

You've probably seen panorama's displayed and showcased at various places -- they're long and skinny and commonly have cityscapes, landscapes, and sports stadiums as their subject. With the release of iOS 6, Apple has updated the built-in camera with the ability to take panoramas by simply panning the scene for the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S.

How to take a great panoramic photos with your iPhone 5 or iPhone 4S and the Camera app

The good news is that the panorama features in the built-in Camera app is super easy to use. First, open the camera app and tap Options, then tap Panorama. You'll then be forced into portrait mode and a horizontal bar will appear in the center of the screen that will show you what's being photographed and a small preview of your panorama as it's being built. There will also be instructions that tell you to "move the iPhone continuously when taking a Panorama". It is important that you obey this. If you stop moving part way, through, then continue again, you will not get as good of results.

The Camera will support panoramas up to 240 degrees so keep this in mind when planning your photo. If you don't want to use the entire 240 degrees, you don't have to. Remember, a longer panorama does not necessarily mean a better panorama. Also, the camera will always default to showing you an arrow that's pointing right, meaning that you pan from left to right, but a simple tap on the arrow will switch the direction from right to left.

Once you've planned out what you want included in your panorama, tap the shutter button to begin and start panning the scene in the direction you have chosen. Do your best to keep the arrow on the center line. If you don't do a perfect job at this, it's ok, but you'll need to follow up with a little cropping. Once you're captured everything in your panorama, tap the shutter button to end the recording.

Go vertical

Traditionally, panoramas are horizontally oriented, but this is by no means a requirement! Some of the most interesting panoramas I've ever seen were vertically oriented like the one shown to the right. To do so, just flip your phone so that the shutter button is on the right before starting your panorama. The UI will not adjust for you holding the phone in landscape, but that's ok. Just start at the bottom and pan upwards. When you're done, your panorama will be oriented correctly.

How to take a great panoramic photos with your iPhone with 3rd party apps

If your iPhone is a model older than the iPhone 4S, then you'll have to head to the App Store to take panorama photos. Luckily, there are many affordable apps in the App Store that do offer this functionality.

My personal favorite iPhone app for creating panoramic photographs is AutoStitch Panorama. The reason I like this one so much is because it lets you stitch any arrangement of photos. You're not limited to stitching photos to the left and right of each other -- you can also go up and down. It also supports high resolution creations up to 18 megapixels.

While the software will take care of the stitching, it can only do as good a job as your images allow. There are several things you need to do to make sure the photos you take will come together into an amazing panorama, including maintaining a steady camera position, taking sufficient pictures, keeping focus and exposure consistent, and leaving enough room to crop the final image.

Pivot the iPhone around the camera lens

The biggest key to taking good panoramic photos is to make sure you don't shift the position of the iPhone while taking the photos. What I mean, is to imagine that there's a pole sticking out of the bottom of your iPhone, centered under the lens) and that the only motion you're allowed to do is to spin the pole so that the iPhone rotates. Since panoramic images are created by stitching multiple photos together, it should make sense that any shift of the camera's position will lessen the quality of results.

To prevent shifting your iPhone as you pan across the scene taking photos, I recommend holding your iPhone in the landscape position with two hands. To increase stability, you should also press your elbows against your torso. As you take the photos, do not to twist your body or move your feet. Place your left thumb and forefinger below and above the lens. Position your right hand similarly about the home button. The only movement you want to make is with your right hand. Keep your body facing the same direction and just rotate the iPhone with your right hand -- pivot about your left hand.

The easiest types of panoramas to take are of landscapes or big open spaces. Since everything is far away, there's plenty of room for error. The app you use for stitching will still be able to produce great results even if you shift the camera more than you should have.

Err on the side of too many photos

Just about every iPhone app that's dedicated to panoramic photography will advice you to make sure that you have at least 30% overlap between your adjacent photos. Unless you're using an app that overlays the previous image while taking the next one, I recommend overlapping a little more than 30% to play it safe. I say this for two reasons: 1. you may not be correctly estimating 30%, and 2. the more photos you have, the better chance you have at completing a nice precise stitch job.

Use AE/AF lock to keep a consistent exposure and focus

If your scene has a lot of dark and light elements, of if you're close to something you want in focus, make sure you trigger the AE/AF feature of the iPhone's camera. To do this, simply hold your finger down on the screen until the blue focus box starts pulsating. When you release, "AE/AF Lock" should appear on the screen.

Give yourself room to crop

Make sure that you give yourself enough room to crop your your final image. In the photo above (a panorama of the school I teach at), I made sure to capture enough of the sky and grass to give me the flexibility of cropping it exactly how I wanted when the stitching was done. First, I cropped it like this, applying the rule of thirds to the horizon and giving the interesting sky the spotlight.

But it's common practice to critique every image that I take, and after looking at this one a bit, I wasn't happy with how the left building is underexposed and didn't feel it really added to the photo. Sure, including it makes the panorama longer, but my goal isn't to create the widest pano, but to create an interesting photograph. To further justify cropping out the building on the left, I noticed that the sky was least interesting on that part of the photo as well. Here's the final image after cropping off the left.

This is a much better photograph, in my opinion. It may not show off as much of the campus, but that's ok. I've instead brought the focus of the image to the properly exposed buildings and the interesting sky.

Panoramic macros

When I saw these mushrooms in the grass, I was dying to take photos of them, and since I was working on this panoramic iPhone photography article, I thought I'd try to get a close-up, macro-style panorama. Nearly 15 tries later, I settled on the above image.

Remember how I mentioned that if you shift the position of the lens while taking the photos that it increases the chance of a bad stitch job? This is a prime example of the truth of that statement and demonstrates why close-up panoramas are very difficult.

For each of my attempts, I took 35-40 photos in hopes of improving my results, but they still all ended up with a lot of unwanted distortion. The problem was that since I was laying flat on my stomach propped up on my elbows, keeping a perfectly steady rotation was extremely challenging. In the end, I created a platform with the knuckles of my right hand while also keeping it stable on the ground. Then I stabilized the iPhone with my left hand and used my thumb to press the volume buttons to trigger the shutter. I did my best to carefully pivot the iPhone on my knuckles without allowing it to slide around.

In the end, I got an OK panorama. You can see a lot of distortion in the background, though -- it looks like the background is moving (take a look at a larger version to better see what I mean). But I think this is something that's going to be associated with close-up panoramas.

Panoramas as substitutes for wide angles

In addition to creating traditional panoramic photographs, you can use apps like AutoStitch to give the illusion of having a wide angle lens. I'm going to use my desk as an example for this. Here's a photo of my desk from the view of me sitting in my chair.

Horrible photo. It's way too close and cuts off a lot of stuff on my desk. Why don't I back up, you ask? Ok, I will.

Better. This photo does show off more of my desk, and I could've backed up further to show even more, but it's still not giving the look that I want. When envisioning a photo of my desk, I pictured one of those wide angle photographs that actually have some distortion to the photo. I mean this is a photo of my desk for crying out loud -- it needs something special to make it interesting.

That's where thinking of this as a panoramic project comes in. Only instead of creating a long and skinny image, I'm going to stitch a bunch of photos together from all directions, and give it a traditional crop. Here's what I got before cropping -- and I did this while sitting in my chair, the same position as the first photo.

Now we're getting somewhere! Lastly, I rotated and cropped the stitched image to an 8"x10" and got this.

Bingo. This is exactly what I was imagining what an interesting photo of my desk might look like. It has the feel of a wide angle lens, yet I didn't need any fancy gear and a DSLR -- just a $2 app and my iPhone!

Now go out and shoot!

Your assignment this week is create some killer panoramic photos and share them with us in the iMore photography forum. Make sure you also let us know which app you used to stitch your panorama!

How to get more help with iPhone photography

Leanna Lofte

App and Photography Editor at iMore. Mother, wife, and math instructor. Follow her on Twitter @llofte and send her apps to consider for review at iosapps@imore.com

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There are 18 comments. Add yours.

FlopTech says:

Thanks Leanna! Lots of crucial tips that will save us tons of trial-and-error.

1WallpaperF says:

Hmm, I always have trouble doing it perfectly and I end up browsing sites like http://www.iphone5panoramawallpaper.com for nice panorama photos to use as lock screen wallpaper

lungho says:

Ok, now that's some nice photography. I must put this info to good use.

T-Will says:

One note to add, if you tap on the panoramic arrow, it will allow you to take the shot from right to left (instead of left to right).

Leanna Lofte says:

Thanks for the tip! I added it in :)

CamKrohn says:

Leanna, another great article! keep these coming! has helped a lot

garylapointe says:

Ahhhh! Keep the arrow in the center! I didn't realize that. I usually keep them pretty steady so it doesn't move enough for me to notice. But now that I read this, I just tried it and I think it'll help!

Autostitch is awesome, one of my first paid apps and still the most used!

AbblePC says:

Great piece on Panoramic photo shooting & editing, but you may have missed something else while using the Panoramic option. It is important to note that once you choose the Panorama option and the arrow appears on the screen, that you are not forced with only a Left to Right scanning option. To reverse the scanning direction while having the arrow on the screen, tap the arrow and it will invert the direction to Right to Left.
This may be very helpful in specific scenarios such as needing to capture a panoramic photo that has interesting features that are viewable only from that direction. Especially when sunlight or backlighting is better to start in a different area of your subject for obtaining a good focus and white balance or just to capture a different perspective.
It was a big help for me when I was getting creative one day while driving and having my camera mounted by a suction cup phone holder on the windshield and the camera was tilted looking to the right. If I had left it in L to R mode, the photo would not capture but a single frame as the R to L motion thought I was capturing in the wrong direction. Simply reversing the mode allowed the capture to complete with very interesting photos of passed vehicles, construction zones and Fall foliage.
Have fun with it, I know I am.

garylapointe says:

Cool! How fast are you driving when you do that?

Now I'm trying to figure out how it would look if there were a car next to you going the same speed :)

AbblePC says:

Actually I can upload them on Photoshare if you like and they can be viewed in a public folder for all. I was going to do just that this weekend so now is as good a time as any.
I was probably averaging different speeds as I captured different scenes, in fact it's odd what it does to the vehicles I pass on the right side of me, they appear scrunched at times or tractor trailers look normal at the bottom of the vehicle but thier top portions appear at times zig zagged, especially the trailer portion.
I was so amazed while doing it, I just kept taking different shots just to see the funny captures, especially the trucks. The backgrounds were somewhat normal looking in comparison to the vehicles, but when traveling down a mountnain, based on the gyroscope compass and accelerometer, they would start to cut off near the top of the frame. Still, it was fun to say the least.

Leanna Lofte says:

Thanks, I added in the arrow switching tip! :)

garylapointe says:

Interesting how they came out. Thanks for sharing!

tobias_i_d says:

very VERY interesting article. thanks for sharing =)

mdrivera says:

I hope you do not mind but, I shared these instructions here. https://www.facebook.com/IPhonePanoramicShots Thanks!

BePantastic says:

If you want to print your panorama, check out http://www.pantastic.co